Leading article: What Whitehall could learn from Washington

 

Share
Related Topics

Government departments, as we report today, are experiencing an unusually high turnover of staff.

One striking result is that a majority of ministers have been in their current jobs longer than their most senior civil servants. Both in principle and in practice, this need not necessarily be a bad thing. A perennial complaint from outsiders who have dealings with the Civil Service, particularly with its rarefied upper echelons, is that while it may be world-class in many areas, it is uniquely adept at devising ways of protecting its own interests. If the accelerated turnover in the upper ranks means that new thinking can rise faster, the departure of some senior staff need not be too much mourned.

Other factors may also be in play. Some departments are always happier than others, and some ministers more popular than others. That staff turnover is especially high at Education, where Michael Gove is Secretary of State, and at Communities and Local Government, where Eric Pickles is in charge, may mean that these two politicians are "difficult" characters. But it could also mean that they are especially determined or committed to policies demanding new approaches, and that they have alienated those staff who do not see the future the same way.

Every government that aspires to use its parliamentary majority to bring about change complains sooner or later about delaying by civil servants. Sometimes there are clashes. As it is the minister, not the civil servant, that has the political mandate, a parting of the ways may make sense. If dissenters cannot live with the policy, which is what civil servants are paid to do, then it is better for them to leave rather than sabotage it from within.

While a historically high turnover of civil servants should not, of itself, be a cause for panic, however, and could even be healthy, it is no reason for complacency either. For what at least some of the recent departures suggest is that highly competent and well qualified individuals are choosing to jump ship for perhaps less contentious, and almost certainly better remunerated, employment in the private sector.

In the relatively recent past, the Civil Service has tried to make itself competitive as an employer by incorporating certain private-sector mechanisms, notably performance bonuses. In at least one recent case, that of the head of the Student Loans Company, a special tax dispensation was negotiated – which is now, quite rightly, to be withdrawn.

But the dilemma remains: how to attract and retain expertise that is also in demand elsewhere, while not inflating salaries across the Civil Service, where pay is set centrally by length of service and grade? One solution would be to make pay more flexible – for scarce skills – than the current rigid grade structure allows. Another, no less politically difficult at a time when so many people have their pay frozen or cut, would be to raise pay significantly at the top, bringing the Civil Service into line with the recent trend for top professional pay – of doctors, lawyers, headteachers and others – to race away, leaving the less qualified far behind.

Neither remedy would be well received, except by the potential beneficiaries. A more imaginative solution would be to encourage more fluidity between the Civil Service and elsewhere, so that a spell in Whitehall would be treated, as its equivalent in the US government, as a period of public service, where professionals accepted that the financial rewards will be lower. However ministers choose to respond, if at all, they could do worse than seize this rare opportunity to introduce fresh blood into a service whose signal defect remains its institutional aversion to change.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Interim HR Advisor

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are going through an excitin...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£37500 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced Quantity Surveyor r...

Recruitment Genius: Digital & Print Designer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast-growing company speci...

Recruitment Genius: IT Analyst

£17000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s Director of Communications  

i Editor's Letter: Poultry excuses from chicken spin doctors

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Women come back from the fields to sell vegetables at a market in Bangui, Central African Republic  

International Women's Day: Africa's women need to believe in themselves and start leading the way

Sylvia Bongo Ondimba
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable